True Crimes in Context

For me, what makes a true crime book appealing is not the nature of the crime or the gory details. It is the way the author frames the crime: in its time in history and in its place in a specific culture. The way communities or people are affected by it, or the way it mirrors larger problems related to it.

These four books are that kind of true crime.

“Grand Theft Horse,” an amazing, frustrating, but redemptive story, combines a great graphic novel script with lively, fluid artwork that mirrors the energy of the protagonist and the horses. While Gail Ruffu, the subject of the book, is technically the thief, we see that the real crime is how horses are treated in the modern racing system. A fascinating look at a subculture I knew nothing about previously.

“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” is a thick book that pretends to be about a kidnapping and murder of an Irish woman. That crime occurred in 1972 and the victim was suspected of being an informant or sympathizer with the British.

It’s actually a history of the Troubles with Jean McConville’s murder as the keystone around which Patrick Raden Keefe places pieces of this history. This approach makes for a vivid account that will stick in your mind long after you’re done reading.

In “The Third Rainbow Girl: the Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia,” Emma Copley Eisenberg recounts her time working and living in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, as a mentor for at-risk teenage girls. While she is there, she becomes fascinated with a murder that occurred 13 years before. This murder sticks in her life, affecting how she sees her work with the young women, causing her to question her intentions and privileges, and changing the lens through which she sees her friendships and relationships in the community.

“Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation” examines an act of arson that killed many gay men inside a working-class gay bar in New Orleans – the largest mass murder of gay people until the Pulse shooting in 2016. Fieseler spends the first third of the book on the people who were in the bar, not getting to the crime until the second section. In creating a deep and empathetic portrait of the people involved, he makes clear the impact of the crime and the deep loss it engendered. In the last third, Fieseler ties the fire to the rise of the gay rights movement in the 70s, in particular the obstacles that activists faced in New Orleans.

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Grand Theft Horse

A look into the world and power dynamics of horse racing. Gail Ruffu, a horse trainer, steals a horse she is training in order to protect it and sets of years of battling the system.